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‘Creating architectural solutions to social injustice’: Marie Zawistowski

Marie Zawistowski Farmers Market

Shortlisted for the Moira Gemmill Prize for Emerging Architecture 2016

Marie Zawistowski is an architect because she ‘wants to improve the lives of others’. She works at the intersection of practice, education and service ‘to expand the field of architecture and architects in society’ and, perhaps most interestingly, ‘to create architectural solutions to social injustice’.

She is a powerhouse of determination: ‘I want to expand boundaries, push boundaries’. Her initiatives include co-founding (with husband Keith Zawistowski) onSITE – a Virginia-based design/build practice in which she realises low-budget, environmentally sensitive projects (often physically helping to build them herself) – as well as design/buildLAB, an experiential education programme in which architecture students work on and build charitable projects in communities facing economic hardship.

Marie Zawistowski Farmers Market02

Marie Zawistowski Farmers Market02

Covington Farmers’ Market, Covington, Louisiana

Design/buildLAB has completed five community development projects: a covered market, an outdoor amphitheatre, a pedestrian bridge, a baseball fieldhouse and two baseball fields. Budgets range from $30,000 to $240,000 and projects are almost entirely prefabricated. Transported as a  kit of parts, they are swiftly assembled  on site. Students design and build over  nine months, collaborating with local communities and industry experts. The  work is elegant yet robust.

‘Working with an architect is a transformative process for a community,’ Zawistowski says. ‘We go for a grant, and the students also fundraise. We work with donated materials. If we don’t go in, the project wouldn’t happen.’

Masonic Amphitheatre

Masonic Amphitheatre

Masonic Amphitheatre, Clifton Forge, Virginia

Taking part in the construction of projects (‘reclaiming the construction site’) is crucial to her, not least in terms of having the opportunity to rethink building techniques. ‘Our projects are well crafted and are going to last. They are a shared experience.’

Zawistowski’s overall approach has been to focus on relentlessly local interventions with the aim of global impact. Last year was pivotal in terms of scaling up and expanding her reach: the French Minister of Culture appointed her to co-chair an advisory committee on innovation in architectural creation and education. The result? She is now taking design/buildLAB to France and establishing a serious foothold for public interest, community-based design/build education for Europe. As she says: ‘It is an optimistic, positive process. It demonstrates the power of architecture.’

Smith Creek Bridge Zawistowski

Smith Creek Bridge Zawistowski

Smith Creek pedestrian bridge, Clifton Forge, Virginia